To meet China halfway, the US will need to cover more ground than its rival

To give peace a chance, Kevin Rudd's upcoming book should be read in both Beijing and Washington

Yang Jiechi of China and Jake Sullivan of the US have a meeting in Rome, Italy, last month. AP

The devastating effects of the war in Ukraine and the spectre of a nuclear conflict between Nato and Russia confirm a prediction recently made by former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, when he said "the 2020s will be the decade of living dangerously". Mr Rudd, however, did not have Europe on his mind when he wrote those words. He was referring, as the title of his forthcoming book explains, to what he calls The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and Xi Jinping's China.

This is an important book and Mr Rudd, now president of the US-based Asia Society, makes his case powerfully. As he puts it: "There is no time to waste. Hypernationalists are gaining ground in the politics of both capitals. Self-described realists with confrontationist agendas seek to influence their respective national security policies." Strategic engagement is over, according to him. "We have entered a new, uncharted era where there are, as yet, no new rules of the road. The time has therefore come to craft some new ones before it's too late."

Fluent in Mandarin and a serious scholar of Chinese culture, language and history, Mr Rudd writes that despite all that the US and China have in common – love of family, the stress on education, a culture of hard work and aspiration – too often it has seemed "as though the two sides ended up talking past each other". And fundamental to any analysis of how to avoid war – which, let there be no doubt, some US hawks would relish – is a proper understanding of the Chinese leadership's viewpoint, which is also to a great degree that of the population.

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We have entered a new, uncharted era where there are, as yet, no new rules of the road

Mr Rudd may have been one of the only heads of government able to deliver a lecture in Chinese at Peking University, but he was also the leader of one America's staunchest allies. He is not out to make excuses for either side. Although he says that policymakers in both countries need to understand the "perception environment" in each other's capitals, it is clear that the problem lies more on one shore of the Pacific than the other.

The US persists in believing that its mission to spread western notions of human rights and liberal democracy should always be perceived as benign, as should its desire, frequently expressed in the past, that China should embrace such values as it became wealthier.

Quite apart from the fact that some of these values are anathema to the Chinese Communist Party, there is also complete amnesia about America's history with China, such as its participation in what Mr Rudd calls "the brutal foreign occupation of Peking" after the Boxer Uprising of 1900, after which the Qing dynasty government was forced to pay a sum "equal to six times the court's annual revenue at the time" over the following 40 years. Nearly two decades before, the US Congress had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which speaks for itself.

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese labourers were sent to the western Front in the last stages of the First World War to make up for the Allies' shortages of manpower, on the understanding that the then US president, Woodrow Wilson, meant what he said about national self-determination. But after the war, the German-occupied province of Shandong was left under the control of Japan, and the victorious Allies refused China's demand for the abolition of the unequal treaties that it had been forced to sign with colonial powers. America also acted with imperial presumption at the time, and the racism displayed by the outsiders has not been forgotten.

As Mr Rudd writes: "No young person could ever graduate from the Chinese school system without being exposed to the sign said to have been erected in the international concession in Shanghai in the 1920s proclaiming, 'No dogs or Chinese allowed'."

No wonder that when the two countries began a new course with then US president Richard Nixon's historic visit to China in 1971, the two sides had different expectations. "From the outset Beijing saw the relationship as a transactional one" to enhance national security and prosperity, whereas the US came to see it in part "as transformational, carrying with it the deeper objective of changing the fundamental nature of communist China itself".

Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd is a China scholar. Bloomberg

If most in Washington have now woken up to that reality, it is not clear how many try to put themselves in Chinese shoes, from which perspective China's maritime periphery – ringed with US allies South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Australia – appears "deeply hostile", as Mr Rudd puts it.

Convergence is not on the cards, and probably never was. But Mr Rudd is correct to point out that the so-called Thucydides Trap – which occurs when an emerging power looks set to displace the current hegemon – makes war probable, but not inevitable. Out of 10 possible scenarios he outlines for the future of China-US relations, only five involve armed conflict. But that's still five too many for those wish to avoid what could turn into the most catastrophic war the world has ever witnessed.

So Mr Rudd proposes a way out, a framework he calls "managed strategic competition". This involves "a clear understanding of the other's irreducible strategic redlines"; it allows for full-blown competition in military, economic and technological capabilities; and provides the space for fruitful co-operation and collaboration in other areas for mutual and global benefit.

"The two countries need to consider something akin to the procedures and mechanisms that the United States and the Soviet Union put in place to govern their relations after the Cuban Missile Crisis," writes Mr Rudd. Would it be difficult? Would many be unhappy with the compromises that would entail? Would it leave some issues to be resolved at some point in the future? Yes, yes and yes.

I agree, however, with Mr Rudd, who says: "I would argue that there is nothing wrong, let alone cowardly, with kicking this particular can [which is war] a long way down the road." Political space and time are vital for the accommodations that will be necessary for better relations between the globe's two superpowers. To those who say this approach is naive, Mr Rudd has a good retort: "Their responsibility is to come up with something better. I am yet to see one."

Published: April 20, 2022, 7:00 AM
Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National